Freelance Life: Tips for Freelancing Parents
This is one of those posts that will not be helpful for some people, i.e. people who a) don't dread the end of the tax year, and b) don't have little people running around their feet or throwing up on their T-shirt (or both - lucky!). But it may be a bit useful to a few and that's good enough for me to want to write it. It's also fair to say that it's basically the post I wish I'd found and read before I gave birth to my son and many months later began to do the freelance work/parenting shuffle-hustle-balance-battle, because that's what it feels like a lot of the time.
It's very true that as freelancing parents we have a lot of advantages and reasons to be grateful, but I also think we have additional stresses to manage and I'm not even talking about the lack of sick pay, paid annual leave and contracted hours. It's my general experience that most freelancers work more hours than they should despite their best intentions and that was certainly the case for me before I had my son. Prior to becoming a mother, I would start work at my desk around 9 o'clock and aside from breaks for a quick run and lunch, I'd often still be typing away at seven in the evening. I was pretty strict with myself during evenings and would hardly ever work after dinner but I still knew I had the freedom to do so if I had to.
It's this freedom that I really struggled to lose as a new parent who ran a freelance business. It's a happy struggle because I generally love the work I do (I'm a freelance copywriter and content creator for companies and individual brands) and I was very keen to get back to work after having a baby because I found it made me feel more balanced - it's fair to say that I didn't take to motherhood as fondly as I expected to (which you can read a bit about in my Motherhood Diary) and I also became unwell with post-natal anxiety and depression and work was an important part of getting me back to "normal". And yet, I had a fraction of the time I used to have for doing the work I so badly wanted to do.
And some scale this struggle continues... But I've learned that there are things I can do (or not do!) to help me feel more in control of both my work and family life and I'd like to share some of them with you today.
Don't try to do both parenting and freelancing full-time
While I was pregnant I followed a few "mummy bloggers" on Instagram and watched their photos roll into my feed all of them giving me the impression that it was possible to be a full-time parent and run a time-demanding business at the same time. I watched other Instagrammers travel around the world with their children, all the while claiming to run one or two online businesses. I found other freelancers who had children and I felt impressed and inspired by the things they were achieving all the while rasising a family. I knew I wouldn't have the same endless days to work as I'd had before giving birth, and I knew my priorities were going to change completely, but I felt confident I could still do the majority of my freelance work while raising my son, although I'd have to limit travel and fiction writing time because I would have to prioritise paid jobs.
I can't help but think that following those Instagram accounts set me up for a huge fall. I had no idea how becoming a parent would affect me and while I was keen to go back to work (and did indeed do so from around six weeks after my son was born) I have been a parent for two and half years now and I have nowhere near enough time to do all the things I thought I'd be able to. I constantly have to adjust my expectations, and it took a while but I've finally learned to always be generous and conservative with work estimates and deadlines so I have a buffer in case something unexpected happens like my son getting sick or us experiencing a run of sleepless nights.
When I tell other parents who work in full-time employment that I'm a freelancer they say how nice it must be for me to be able to work at home with my son. Every time I hear this I resist the urge to laugh because not only is that not an option because when I'm at home with my son I'm doing this highly time- and energy-consuming thing called parenting, but also if my clients thought I was sitting at home typing out a 2000-word article for them with one hand while I do some painting with my son with the other all the while singing Wheels on the Bus, they would rightly be worried about the quality of work I was doing. Being a freelancer does not automatically mean that you can do your job AND parent at the same time. Yes, it means you can fit work around your children's naptimes and bedtimes and maybe you can grab a half hour here and there when the little ones are busy with a puzzle or book, but anybody who has spent more than ten minutes with the average infant aged 0-4 will know that they have the attention span of a distracted bunny rabbit so you certainly can't run a business in this way... Perhaps more importantly, it's also not really the way I want to parent. I want to be a parent when I'm with my son, and I want to be a writer when I'm at work.
Take time to find the solutions and balance that work for you
As I hope is clear above, it quickly became clear that doing freelance work while at home with my son was just NOT an option, and because we were keen for him to experience the social side of a daycare, that was always our plan eventually.
I first started doing client work about six weeks after my son was born. It was only a few projects and it was quite tough to begin with because I was so exhausted from not sleeping well, but I quickly discovered how important work was for my own well-being. Financially there wasn't pressure to work more than a day a week for a year or so, but as it happened we put our son in daycare for two days a week when he was three-and-a-half months old. We had a number of reasons for this - and we don't live close to family so couldn't rely on grandparents for childcare - but one of them was so I could get back to my freelance work. BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER, PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT I KNOW HOW LUCKY WE ARE THAT WE CAN AFFORD THIS OPTION!!
Within another six months I found I was struggling with managing my workload and honestly speaking, I was also not enjoying my three days alone with my son as much as I expected and this prompted us to try three days of daycare a week. Another eight months later and my workload was increasing and for a month we trialed four days a week of daycare. At this point my son was around 18 months old and while I expected him to enjoy the extra time with his friends at daycare, he struggled and was very tired by the third and fourth day. I also was surprised to find that I didn't enjoy the balance being tipped so much in favour of work. While we are INCREDIBLY fortunate that financially I don't need to work more than three days at this stage in our lives (my partner runs his own successful freelance business), it's also true that we did the sums for four of five days of daycare and it's fair to say that we're almost better off if I don't work four or five days a week so three days of childcare does seem to be the best "balance" overall for us... at the moment. My son is nearly two-and-a-half now and will be starting a pre-school soon which are mornings only so we will have to play around a bit with our days and time together so I know this is all temporary and I feel very fortunate that my freelance hours mean we can play around with these solutions. The important point with all this is that as a freelancer, you have more flexibility than most to celebrate with the times you work and the times you parent; take full advantage of that.
All children are different, as are freelance jobs
Of course, some people CAN work from home while looking after their child or children. Don't ask me HOW, but they do manage it and I want to simultaneously applaud and throttle them.
I, too, can do a lot in those hours of naptime and early evening sleep when their child is tucked up in bed. Personally on some days I am productive enough to run a small country during my son's two-hour-nap but other days (ahem, most) all I want to do is reply to a few emails and then crash out on the sofa with a cup of tea and a good book. My freelance work is time- and energy-demanding and I need a quiet and calm space to really deliver the work I feel my clients deserve. My dining table covered in smudged playdough and surrounded by Duplo bricks is not that calm space. It's also fair to say that my son is not a child who naturally plays by himself. He is quickly entering a phase where his imagination conjurs up scenarios and games he wants to share with someone else and for a long time we've not really been able to just "leave him" to his own devices because he loves to climb things and throw himself head first off the highest place he can find... What I'm trying to say neither my work nor my child lend themselves to me getting freelance work done while I'm with him (and again, it's not really how I want to parent with him seeing me constantly staring at a screen adding more and more frown lines to my forehead) so I have three days when I go to an office (in a co-working space) and from around 9.30 until 4.30 I am a freelancer at work and he is a two-year-old running around at a daycare where he pretty much rules the roost. This is how we get the balance I so badly need for my mental health (plus, also you know, money for clothes, tea bags and a fraction of that aforementioned daycare) and we also feel it's better for my son as he is learning Dutch, social skills and strange songs about elephants getting lost in the woods at his daycare.
Embrace those ten minute chunks of productivity
Before I became a parent, I always thought "real" work - you know the kind of work that progresses projects and really achieves things - could only ever be done in hours. But it's not true. In ten minutes I can reply to five emails (on a good day). In ten minutes I can jot down some ideas for a client project. In ten minutes I can even make a quick phonecall. While yes, as mentioned above, I need longer chunks of time to get creative work done, I can still progress projects and manage my freelance business in shorter periods of time, and parenthood has definitely taught me how to do that. I even welcome a ten-minute chunk of child-free time to get some fiction writing done as I have really seen these minutes add up to chapters and chapters to a nearly finished manuscript.
You can also make your life easier with respect to maximising your stolen ten or twenty minutes of time by having a To Do list that clearly lists shorter tasks so you'll always have ideas for what you can do next when you do find yourself blessed with a child who is happily playing by themselves and holy smokes, you don't have to do any washing, cooking or cleaning. I wrote more about giving tasks times and other productivity tips for parents in this post.
Don't pretend you're not a parent
Before I became a mother and when I worked in full-time employment, I worked with parents and I would talk to them about their children. I knew how many kids people had, how old they were and maybe I knew their names or what they liked doing, but aside from passing comments about how tired they were, I never really understood just how difficult being a parent in the workplace is. People mostly kept their family life separate from their work life. Former colleagues would ask a grandparent or a neighbour to pick up a sick child from school after getting the dreaded phonecall. A client once told me his son was in hospital following a (non-serious) operation and yet there he was in a meeting with me. What I find strangest of all now is that at the time I didn't think anything of this. I too thought that work should come first and aside from truly traumatic and tragic scenarios, I would be surprised and even a bit judgmental when others chose a family commitment over a work one.
I'd like to think that in the last six years since I began freelancing full-time attitudes and work environments have changed, but I'm not so sure. The one thing I can say is that my own attitude has changed, partly by choice and partly because of circumstance. Because I only work three days a week I have to tell my clients when I am or am not available for calls or meetings. I am very open and say "I'm with my son" on Thursday and Fridays and I don't make apologies for it. I also don't offer to "squeeze in" work on those days because I can never ever predict how well his naptime will go and I'm not about to set myself up for a fall if it's a day he chooses standing up in his cot, shaking the sides and crying out "Mummy, Mummy, Mummy" like I've abandoned him over having a nice little sleep.
If you pretend you're not a parent you are reinforcing this philosophy that work is more important than family and that one part of your identity is worth more than another. You also make it really hard for you to have enough time to catch up with important Netflix binges during the times your little one does choose a nice little sleep over his own version of prison break.
Don't pretend you're not a freelancer
In the same vein as honesty being the best policy for your clients, it's important for your children to know that you have a job and that you work. While children need (and should get) a helluva lot of love and attention, they also need to know that parents perform many roles and need to for their own personal well-being as well as the good of the family. There are millions of articles about screens leaving a generation of "neglected" children who feel their parents are more interested in a phone than them (and I'm in complete agreement that too much Snapchat or Candy Crush is bad for ALL concerned) but I'm also a little nervous about children growing up thinking that a parent's sole purpose is to feed, cater, pander and entertain. Of course it depends greatly on the child's age and temperament but I am convinced my son is more sociable and more confident because he goes to daycare and has time apart from his father and me. I also know that he has learned to occasionally play by himself because I often busy myself with something else too - making dinner, folding washing, writing a shopping list, and yes, occasionally dealing with an important bit of work. I look forward to him being old enough that I can explain what my work is and why I do it, but in the meantime I do my best to show him that what I'm doing is important - whether that's playing with him or doing something else that contributes to our lives in another way.
You're never, ever missing out
I'm really not one to get FOMO (fear of missing out) but I think all working parents have a chronic diagnosis of this, especially those who freelance or run their own business. When you work you want to be with your child and when you're with your child you're thinking about work. It's like you can never win. With freelancing, becoming a parent can be even harder because the new restrictions on your life may mean turning down opportunities that would have been easy and oh so enjoyable to pursue pre-children. For me this has mostly meant turning down travel opportunties because they don't pay enough or don't pay at all and I just can't justify it as it will mean I make less money that month with my limited working hours. It has also meant some work projects that I would have loved to have worked on because they were really interesting but couldn't because there just wasn't enough time to do the work or the dates clashed with a family commitment. When these situations arise I often feel like I'm missing out.
And then when I'm at work, I feel huge, all-encompassing and tear-duct-stimulating waves of missing my son. And the guilt, oh the guilt of choosing to spend my time lost in a spreadsheet of expenses, or researching SEO keywords, over watching my son play... None of it makes any sense and I feel so torn and yep, like I'm missing out on these precious and fleeting early months of my son's life.
It's taken me a long time to find a way to manage (not remove, nope, that's impossible) these feelings of missing out. Firstly, when I feel the balance is tipped one way or another, I remind myself that I'm a better mother for spending three days a week working. I remind myself how frazzled I feel on Sunday nights and how good that first sip of coffee in my office on Monday morning tastes. I tell myself that my priority is caring for my son and that means working almost as much as it means being with him. Choosing the better paying and often less exciting projects is also one of the ways I prioritise my boy, but I'm still doing work I enjoy and I still get to chooose! Compared with so many others, how can I be missing out when I get to do work I enjoy? How can I complain (or how can he complain!) when I get to pick him up before 5.30pm every day? And for me, no matter how slow I go, I'm still progressing in a career that I built for myself. I am NOT missing out.
Secondly, I remind myself what kind of person I was when I spent every waking moment with my son. Aside from sustaining him, I was depleted, exhausted and useless. Ironically, I also wasn't that great at sustaining myself. I need time on my own - working or otherwise - to be the best possible parent I can be. Also, I am not solely responsible for raising him; aside from his father being equally responsible, we can delegate that job to others who are loving, caring and possibly even better at it!
And finally, I've come to see that when I'm with my son, that is when I'm doing the REAL work. This is the work that will have the biggest impact on not just my life but his and the lives of others he comes in contact with. In a way, this is the work that will change the world and so I'm not missing out on a single damn thing if I choose or have to choose being with him over a work opportunity. He is the greatest work of my life and I'm so very lucky that freelancing enables me to do it in a way I have more choice and freedom than most.
Frances M. Thompson
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